In 1919 his family moved to Athens, where he received his initial education at a classical gymnasium in Athens. After studying civil engineering for four years at the National Technical University of Athens, he continued his studies at the Technical University of Munich, where he obtained his engineering diploma in 1936. Just after graduation he was employed by a private consulting organization working on the leading-edge technical design of highly complex structures. One of these early engineering accomplishments was that of designing a 320m high radio transmitter mast with a heavy mass concentrated at the top.
With the outbreak of World War II, John was in Berlin continuing his studies at the Technical University. Just after the German invasion of Greece, John was arrested and led to a concentration camp, on the accusation of transferring research secrets to the Allies. His savior turned out to be the eminent German Admiral Kanaris, of Greek descent, who arranged his escape by informing the guards that the prisoner would be executed outside the camp. In 1944, Kanaris himself was tragically executed as one of the leaders of the assassination attempt against Hitler. Following his escape from prison, John managed to leave Germany soon thereafter in a very dramatic manner. He swam across the Rhine River during a midnight air raid, holding his passport in his teeth. He managed to reach Switzerland, where he completed his doctoral degree at ETH Zurich in 1942 in aeronautics. In 1943 he moved to England and worked as a technical officer at the Engineering Department of the Royal Aeronautical Society of London.
John could never derive any pleasure in ordinary day-today work and was only attracted to problems that seemed unsolvable. Even when working in industry, his directors soon realized that the best policy toward John Argyris was to entrust him with intractable problems. At the same time he was fascinated by the properties of triangular and tetrahedral components that appeared to him as ideal elements to build up an engineering system. He could never sympathize with Cartesian analytical geometry that he found most inelegant. During the war, he wrote three classic papers in Reports and